Invisible Feet

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Invisible Feet

It’s hard to find the time to play video games these days. The problem isn’t so much my available leisure time, but more the length and complexity of modern videos games. If you have an hour or two spare to play a game, there’s a very good chance that you’ll either spend the entire session going through a tutorial or wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out how to progress. I used to mostly play through arcade style games or platformers, which you could usually complete within an hour or die trying. With modern games, knowing that the whole thing will take about sixty-plus hours to complete is quite off putting and I tend to find myself just watching a movie instead. Because of this, I really started to get into a genre of game I like to call exploration games, however you probably know them as walking simulators.

I’m going to refer to them as walking simulators here too. The name was originally used as a way of dismissing them as legitimate games, but its a title that has stuck and it just seems easier to refer to them that way now. Besides, genres are just a way to loosely categorise media with similar content for the sake of comparison. Before Resident Evil defined the survival horror genre, you could have categorised it as an adventure game, a shooter or a puzzler. You could even define it by it’s theme as a horror or as a science fiction. It’s all of those things and walking simulators overlap with a number of other genres too, but the question seems to be “are they even games?” Well, at its basically level, a walking simulator only requires a player to move from one destination to another whilst a story unfolds along the way. There’s minimal interactivity and the player just sits back and takes in the environment. So no, they’re not games in the traditional sense as there’s no real challenge to overcome, but some titles do offer a few puzzles or threats along the way. Basically there are no real rules and nor should a game have to fit into some sort of strict genre boundary. It’s best to see them more as a digital interactive experience if you must. Games will continue to change, evolve and branch off in all sorts of directions. You can’t contain them within categories.

Shenmue 2's final chapter

This new way to experience a game (and I’m also going to refer to them as games for the sake of simplicity) caught my attention because I could focus on the visuals and the story without having to worry about what I needed to do to progress. I first experienced this in the final chapter of Shenmue 2 on the Dreamcast, where the gameplay changed from the action and adventure of the previous chapters to a leisurely walk through rural China. It was a relaxing way to end the game, with no real challenges apart from a few minor quick time events, whilst the final part of the story was simply told through the character’s dialogue as you walked along. It wasn’t until almost a decade later when a game called Dear Esther was released, which brought this style of play to people’s attention.

Dear Esther is as simple as games get. You walk along a set path, there are no obstacles in the way and it’s not really possible to get lost. As you walk, a narrator tells you the story with short segments of dialogue until you reach your destination. The enjoyment you get out of this game entirely depends on what you expect from it. If you don’t have much time to play a game and you prefer to explore an environment rather than solve puzzles and shoot enemies, then you’ll probably find the experience an enjoyable one. This way of playing can be a welcome change for those of us who find our gaming time to be a bit limited. You’re almost guaranteed to reach the end within a couple of hours, unless you decide to take a bit of time to admire the scenery.

A lonely stroll in Dear Esther

As with all genres, these ideas begin to evolve and branch off to form other similar, yet different, experiences. Gone Home, another popular title, is set in a large empty house and replaces the linear path with the freedom to explore the rooms in any order. Games such as Amnesia and The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter also add puzzle elements and a sense of threat. Then there’s titles such as Virginia, where you’re not even walking towards a set destination, but rather moving around small individual scenes lasting from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Other games, such as The Stanley Parable, add multiple routes and destinations. This shows how a simple idea will lead to many new and different ways to play and how they can no longer be contained within the category of what defines a game. It’s ridiculous to think that because something doesn’t adhere to these rules that it shouldn’t exist.

The dark corridors in Alien Isolation

This brings me to Alien Isolation, a game based on a movie that merges the genres of science fiction and horror, feels like another further evolution of the walking simulator. It’s also a stealth game, a shooter and a survival horror. Then there’s the fact that it’s very long and there’s no way you can finish this one in a single sitting without plenty of caffeine. What it does retain from the walking simulator is that feeling of exploration (which is why I prefer the term exploration game) and the added threat of an alien antagonist doesn’t take anything away from that other than the usual sense of calm. If the walking simulator genre isn’t your thing, you should at least be able to appreciate how other types of games can borrow from the genre, just as how walking simulators have borrowed elements from other games. If we only stick to genres that are easy to define, then games would get boring very quickly.

Whatever games you like to play, it’s important to not dismiss those you do not completely. They’re constantly evolving and inspiring developers to try new things and bend the rules, which makes for more exciting and original games. For those of use who enjoy a two hour stroll through a virtual world, we have plenty more to look forward to.

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